Exploring power and privilege: why Black Panther is a hero for our time

Director Ryan Coogler's Black Panther may borrow a few moves from other superhero movies, but the film's vibrant influences and exploration of complex ideas set it apart.

Afro-centric Marvel title quickly distinguishes itself from its comic book-inspired brethren

Heavy lies the crown of Black Panther on T'Challa, the new ruler of Wakanda in Marvel's latest cinematic superhero tale. (Marvel Studios)

From the moment the talking drum announces the entrance of the Wakandan king, Black Panther sets itself apart from its comic book-inspired brethren.

Sure, it's still a superhero film, with all that term entails — chase sequences, fantastical weapons, cackling bad guys. But the influences woven into the fabric of the film are why Black Panther transcends the genre.

One of the reasons Black Panther works is because of the faith Marvel Studios has put into director Ryan Coogler. With a $200 million US budget to play with, he began by bringing production designer Hannah Beachler and costume designer Ruth E. Carter to Africa. There, they soaked up the culture of the continent and let their imaginations run wild.

Production designer Hannah Beachler incorporated African tribal elements to create the futuristic look of Wakanda, including for the nation's grand throne room. (Marvel Studios)

The result is a riotous rainbow of colours as the fictional African nation of Wakanda comes to life. A hidden African country unscarred by colonization, it's unveiled as a technological utopia. 

The story itself is more royal rumble than the usual Marvel movie treasure hunt. Chadwick Boseman stars as T'Challa, a young king who inherits the mantle (and the power) of Black Panther after the death of his father. Boseman exudes a quiet confidence that befits his character's regal stature. 

The emergence of Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan, right) as a challenger to T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) energizes the film. (Marvel Studios)

T'Challa is soon tested by the appearance of Erik Killmonger (portrayed by Michael B. Jordan, a frequent collaborator of director Coogler). With fury in his eyes, Jordan's Killmonger — an American mercenary raised in a life of crime and poverty outside the hidden Wakandan paradise — brings a harsh reality check to utopia.

For this Afro-futuristic adventure, Coogler has assembled some of the finest black actors working today: Forest Whitaker plays a Wakandan priest, Lupita Nyong'o is a covert agent with the power to catch the king's eye.

The newest millennial in the Marvel universe, Letitia Wright brings a welcome bit of levity as Shuri, tech genius and the king's sister. (Matt Kennedy/Marvel Studios)

But the most exciting addition is Letitia Wright as the Wakandan princess. Black Panther can get stoic and serious at times, but the film brightens every time she appears. Not only is Wright's sneaker-wearing millennial a tech genius who could teach Tony Stark a thing or two, but T'Challa's sister Shuri also keeps his royal highness grounded. 

Black Panther features a number of familiar action sequences, such as this car chase on the streets of Busan, South Korea. (Marvel Studios )

For action fans, Black Panther's only real weakness is the sense of sameness that marks many of the fight and chase sequences. As is often the case in Marvel films, superfolk leap onto cars, employ amazing machines and make improbable feats seem easy. Here, Coogler plays it safe, but where Black Panther breaks new ground is the relevance of what's driving the conflict. 

After the appearance of challenger to the king's throne, a civil war threatens to tear Wakanda apart. (Marvel Studios)

Black Panther isn't a film about battling a giant robot or chasing magic stones. Instead, it explores issues of power and privilege, taking us inside a country torn apart by questions about whether to share its riches. Instead of "America First," T'Challa governs by the motto "Wakanda Forever."

But at what cost? The fire in Killmonger's eyes stems from his sense of injustice about this hidden paradise where Wakandans thrived, while the rest of the world burned.   

Director Ryan Coogler, left, chats with Black Panther star Boseman on set. (Matt Kennedy/Marvel Studios)

At the end of Spike Lee's seminal film Do The Right Thing Lee challenged the audiences with two quotes: one from Malcolm X and the other from Martin Luther King Jr.

One could say Black Panther is the Do The Right Thing of superhero movies: a film that questions the right way forward. 

That Coogler and his team managed to embed these concepts amidst the blockbuster's spectacular vistas and visions is what makes Black Panther a hero whose time has come. 

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 stars.